Movie Review : Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Late sequels like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have a bad reputation among moviegoers. They can smell the stench of stressed out Hollywood executives' armpit sweat from across America, whenever one is announced. But it worked for a couple years. People were conned into shedding their hard earned money in order to watch the shell of their beloved characters embarrass themselves on screen. Is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a disgrace to everybody's favorite archaeologist like it's made out to be or did it suffer the audiences' backlash against a cynical trend?
Well, I ended up my retrospective with the bastard child of Indiana Jones movies, trying to figure out its rightful place in their legacy.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in the late fifties, in the midst of the Cold War and the nuclear panic that would eventually climax with the Cuban missile crisis. After fending off Russians in a New Mexico military base, an aging Indiana Jones (impeccably played by Harrison Ford again) is approached by a James Dean-like character named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who tells him his friend Harold Oxley (the always excellent John Hurt) found a mythical crystal skull in Peru. And, you know, according to the legend, it's a very powerful supernatural artifact and the Russian happen to be quite interested in it.
The aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is so fucking cool and bold that it almost makes up for how fucking stupid, lazy and cynical the movie is. There's an unabashed artificiality to it. A use of oversaturated lighting to create supernatural atmospheres and an indulgent use of green screen that mimics the aesthetic of old drive-in movies. It's insanely fun and dynamic to watch. Steve Spielberg really commits to this idea and makes you forget what year it is for two hours. That makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the best movie to watch when you're too drunk to understand what's going on.
But that's about it. Vintage aesthetics is all the fun you'll get from that movie. Indiana Jones movies have always been stunts and special effects over plot and character development, but Spielberg and George Lucas aren't even trying here. Any mouth breather takes one look at the titular crystal skull and understands immediately that it belongs to an alien race, but the movie will force you through the hoops of car chases and contrived plot twists before revealing it to you. It will pull random, nonsensical deux ex machinas out of its ass in order to appear different and original, like an army of moral monkeys helping out Shia LaBeouf and attacking the Russians in the Peruvian jungle.
I can hear you say it from here: "Ben, it's an Indiana Jones movie. I don't care about the plot. All I want is big, fat, ridiculous action scene." That's an outright lie. You do care about the plot. The difference between a good and a bad action scene is whether or not you know what's going to happen next. If you do, it means the scene has been inserted in to pump up viewing time and artificially ratchet tension. And Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is crammed full of these stupid ass scenes once the Russians catch up to Indy's party in the jungle. All the shootouts and explosions in the world don't matter if your film doesn't have any fucking soul.
So, this review completes my retrospective of Indiana Jones movies. I find there is only one truly great action movie in there - Raiders of the Lost Ark - and the rest somewhat struggles with the various directions it's trying to take. Indiana Jones never really commits to something greater than himself. He alludes to being a modern day Paladin in Raiders and Last Crusade, a protector of Christianity, but veers away from it in Temple of Doom and Crystal Skull. So, I'm going to say it. It's gonna hurt for a while, but let it sink it before hurling your feces at me: Indiana Jones is... a little overrated. That's why he was never anybody's main guy and that he always took the backseat to Star Wars. He doesn't represent anything greater than himself.